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Canada’s capital-2: Planning a capital for all Canadians

by David Gordon

Capital cities must be more than functional and efficient places for their residents and employees. A nation-state usually has higher-order objectives for its seat of government, especially if it is a political capital like Canberra, New Delhi, Washington, Bras’lia or Ottawa-Gatineau, as opposed to a metropolitan capital like London or Tokyo.1

What distinguishes these new political capitals is that they are intended to be tools for nation-building. Such invented traditions can be retrogressive (imperial New Delhi) or even malevolent, depending on the values of the sponsoring governments – most notoriously Hitler’s plans for Berlin or Mussolini’s evocation of imperial Rome. In contrast, the best capital-city design can showcase the cultural and democratic values of the sponsoring government, such as Paris’s grands projets or the Lincoln, Jefferson and Vietnam War memorials on the Mall in Washington. In this spirit, Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s design for Washington physically captured the separation of the executive and legislative branches of the United States government through the siting of the Capitol and White House.2

Washington and Paris may not be good models for planning Ottawa-Gatineau, not only because their sites are different but also because the United States, France and Canada are very different countries. Canada is not a monolithic state peopled by a single ethnic group, which makes defining a simple and clear national identity rather difficult. This complexity can be seen as a national strength in accommodating diverse new immigrant groups, one of the most difficult tasks in the modern world. However, Canada’s character means that few of the traditional nation-building tools are appropriate. We cannot promote a single language (as in France), give preference in immigration to a single ethnic group, promote the shared experience of compulsory military service or mythologize patriotic wars against colonial oppressors. A bilingual, multicultural Canadian federation must work with a more limited set of nation-building tools – adapting national symbols, renaming geographic features, supporting national sports, celebrating culture and promoting shared values.

Canada is something of a model for the modern multinational state, since it is one of the world’s oldest democracies, the first state to negotiate peacefully its freedom from colonial rule and a country with a relatively good record of tolerance while accommodating a large and diverse population of new immigrants. The best approach to nation-building under these circumstances seems to be to avoid the corrosive effects of ethnic nationalism and focus instead on civic nationalism – promoting the shared liberal democratic values and history of the country. Unfortunately, civic nationalism provides relatively

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About the Author

David Gordon
David Gordon teaches planning history, community design and urban development in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.




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